September 22, 2012

When Arthur Halpern and his partner Matt Praet first got together nearly 14 years ago, they knew that one day, they wanted to have a child. After Praet was finished with acupuncturist school and the two were settled, they set about starting their family, attending an expo at New York’s LGBT Community Center. With the help of the group Men Having Babies and a wonderful surrogate mother introduced to them by some friends, they now have a beautiful 15-month-old son.

“The choice we made to go via surrogacy and in-vitro fertilization had to do with my desire to have a biological child,” said Halpern. “I’m not sure where that comes from; perhaps it’s a biological imperative. But I’ve wanted a family since I was a kid, and the fact that through science we can now do it is amazing.”

Halpern said that they had considered adoption because his partner Praet was adopted and had a good experience. But they were daunted by the fact that for gay men, adoption can be tricky; one often has to present as a single parent in other countries, to avoid problems surrounding being gay. There were also legal risks and medical unknowns that the two men decided they preferred to avoid.

In the spring of 2009, the men met with a New Jersey fertility doctor, who armed them with information, and sent them to Melissa Brisman, a reproductive rights attorney at the CNY Fertility Center. That June, at a 20th college reunion, Halpern ran into a former classmate who raved about their surrogate, noting that the woman was thinking of doing it again.

“We walked away thinking it would be great, but that it would never happen,” said Halpern. “Six weeks later, this surrogate Jessica had come up from Tennessee to speak to a small group of men at the Center. We went that night, met her, and it was love at first sight. She picked us out as we walked into the room, and it almost felt like a done deal.”

They were officially matched in July 2009, after which they went on a long search for an egg donor. “If there was a rotten egg out there, we found it,” said Halpern, who said it took them seven tries before they found an egg donor in October 2010. Their son Asa was born on June 5, 2011.

The Long, Complicated Road to Surrogacy
In the pilot episode of the NBC sitcom “The New Normal,” it takes the two men only 28 minutes to decide that they want to start a family, decide upon surrogacy and find a suitable mother for their child. In the real world, it takes quite a bit longer, and there are many more hoops to jump through. Luckily, Men Having Babies can help perspective fathers realize their dream.

“When ’The New Normal’ came about, we realized we had something to say about this, so we started a community page on Facebook where people are commenting about what they have seen in the pilot,” said Men Having Babies Executive Director Ron Poole-Dayan, whose twin kids (via surrogacy) are now in the sixth grade. “There’s a lot of be said as far as relationships and the reality of it.”

On September 22, Poole-Dayan celebrates their eight annual Men Having Babies Seminar at the Center, bringing gay men who want to be fathers together with surrogates, lawyers, IVF clinics and others who can help them reach their goals. As part of this year’s program, Men Having Babies has announced a financial assistance fund, to help people raise the average $110,000 required to undergo this process.

“We are very excited because one of our goals is to advocate for the benefits of LGBT parenting,” said Poole-Dayan. “The other thing is providing detailed info about how much it costs and how to do it. Until we published the Surrogacy Adviser directory and started receiving ratings from our members, we only knew of the big, well-known agencies. But now we have found some others that are successful for much less. And we have raised about $45,000 in sponsorship fees over the past few months, and hope to get some donations from wealthy parents to help other people who need financial assistance.”

“I wish it were in place when we started our journey,” admitted Halpern, saying that he and his partner did not fit the stereotype of the wealthy gay couple portrayed on TV. “I don’t quite know how we did it. Everything I had we put into having this baby. We couldn’t pay $150,000 outright to have everything taken care of simultaneously, so we went very à la carte. It would be great if it was a little easier.”

This was also welcome news to David Milch, the Men With Babies member who referred his surrogate to Halpern and Praet. Although he said the cost wasn’t prohibitive for him and his partner, biology shouldn’t force gay men to go broke paying for what most heterosexual couples could have for free.

“My philosophy is that not only should gay people be allowed to have families when they so choose, but it shouldn’t be harder,” said Milch. “Nothing says our family is any less valuable, or should cost more than other families. It becomes a classist situation where there is only access for people who can afford it. But it’s bigger than whether you can afford to pay the clinics. We have to start talking about what kind of structures we’re creating that allow some people to have a family and some to not.

Connecting Surrogate Mothers with Perspective Gay Dads
“I had heard a story on NPR about gay men having trouble adopting children, and thought it was not right,” Jessica Szalacinski told EDGE. “I was raised in an open-minded environment, and thought ’How dare you!’ So I figured I could either get out there with picket sign, or I could do it myself and make a family.”

Szalacinski told EDGE that her upbringing got her and her husband talking about the idea of helping two thoughtful people who wanted to be parents to have a child.

The first couple she worked with was Milch and his partner Alex, who found out about Men Having Babies through a monthly meeting at the Center. After talking to experts there, they located an egg donor who happened to be a relative, making their child biologically related. Via Melissa Brisman’s agency, they were eventually connected with Szalacinski, who flew out to New Jersey to do a physical and psychological screening, and write up a contract.

“Once we met Jessica and started the process, there were no hiccups,” said Milch. “So when she said she’d like to do this again, we helped introduce her to Art and his partner Matt, the next couple whose child she carried.” Szalacinski said that she has contemplated serving as a surrogate one final time, to carry a sibling for Milch’s child, who is now 3 years old.

Szalacinski said that she was compensated between $19,000 to 25,000 for carrying each child, adding, “I know these guys are not made of money. That’s one of the things I’m not crazy about how the TV show portrayed it. But it’s still good exposure.” Noting that, “they want to know the factory works,” Szalacinksi said that like the character in “The New Normal,” she also has a child of her own.

The New Normal & The Normal Normal
Milch agreed that he was perturbed by the fact that a process they spent two and half years on took only 28 minutes to accomplish on TV. But he said the show also revealed truths around looking at the database to find your egg donor and the travails of finding a surrogate, and the milestones in which all your hopes and dreams are invested.

“Surrogates go through much more rigorous screenings than egg donors do, because it is their responsibility to care for your child for nine months,” noted Halpern. “There is a battery of injections for months before. Plus your diet, lifestyle, and relationships are scrutinized, because the health and safety of the woman and baby is of the utmost importance.”

He and his partner were glad that they had the time to get to know Jessica while searching for an egg donor, saying, “The truth is, we fell in love with her. She will remain someone incredibly dear to us.”

Both couples were thrilled with the fact that their process was open, meaning that their children will know that Szalacinski is their surrogate mother. “We wanted to take as many question marks as possible away from our son, so his origin story would be as detailed as everyone else’s,” said Halpern.

“The beautiful thing about this kind of family building is there are a lot less secrets,” echoed Szalacinski, noting that she still talked to and exchanged pictures with the men.

Halpern doesn’t know how NBC would sustain the TV show over more than one season, saying, “We talk to Jessica every month, but you go from an incredibly intimate space that culminates in the birth of a child, to this odd separation that is really hard on everyone.”

Although there’s no indication how long “The New Normal” will endure, Men Having Babies continues to hold regular meetings for men who want to become fathers in this way. Poole-Dayan said that the group operates the world’s only Surrogacy Speakers Bureau, with more than 100 gay men from all over the country who are willing to speak about the process. They recently started a Facebook page, Living The New Normal, which they hope will answer some questions brought up by the NBC sitcom. At the least, it will serve to draw some awareness to gay men having babies via surrogacy.

“For me, the positive that comes out of this is talking about what kind of world we want our children to live in. I want my child to grow up in world where the hardest thing for her to conceive is that not every child has a daddy and a papai,” said Milch, who runs a bilingual household with his Brazilian partner. “It has to do with having loving and caring people who have dedicated their lives to taking care of you. And to me, that’s the new normal.”